It’s the International Day of Happiness and the Action for Happiness pledge asks us to “try to create more happiness in the world around us." But how do we do that?
The Action for Happiness movement has created a guidebook that details 10 keys to happier living, noting that happiness is generally to do with our attitudes and relationships with other people. The 10 recommendations include:
· Doing things for others
· Connecting with people
· Taking care of your body
· Living life mindfully
· Learning new things
· Having goals to look forward to
· Finding ways to bounce back
· Looking for what’s good
· Being comfortable with who you are, and
· Being part of something bigger.
Some of those things sound pretty self explanatory, but what does it mean to live life mindfully? Luckily, we have an expert in mindfulness right on our doorstep.
Cayoun is a clinical psychologist in private practice, a Research Associate in the
School of Nursing at the University of Tasmania, a Research Associate at the
School of Psychology at the University of Technology Sydney, Monash University,
and Massey University (NZ). He is also the Director of the MiCBT Institute.
MiCBT stands for Mindfulness-integrated Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. The
institute specialises in treatment, training and research.
Dr Cayoun says that mindfulness is a specific way of paying attention, as objectively as possible and free from personal judgements.
“We always make personal judgements,” he said, “our mind is trained to assess phenomena automatically according to our sense of self."
When we experience a situation inside or outside ourselves, our mind misses most of the sensory aspects of it (seeing, hearing, touching, etc.) because it very quickly makes an evaluation that is mostly about likes and dislikes, according to who we think we are. This includes our needs, personality, culture, social identity and values. If the situation is found to be agreeable, it is neurologically wired (from the medial-prefrontal cortex to the insular cortex) to produce a pleasant sensation somewhere in the body. If the situation is judged as being disagreeable, it produces an unpleasant body sensation. The intensity of the body-sensation varies according to how we take things personally.
“Then we react based on our past learning. The stronger the body sensation (i.e., the consequence of having taken something personally), the stronger the reaction will be.”
Dr Cayoun said that these body sensations are mostly subconscious and pro-survival. Our nervous system is wired that way because our mind is conditioned to react with craving when we need to feed, procreate, or need the support of our social environment, and with aversion when we evaluate the situation as a threat to our survival, including social survival.
Unless we learn to observe these mechanisms for what they are, mindfully, this very predictable habit pattern of the mind is maintained. There may be a kind of survival there, but not much happiness.
“Mindfulness is about training the brain to remove those judgements and examine the stimuli without reacting… to be less driven by the need to protect our sense of self (our ego), less biased, more objective, to approach things like we try to do in science.”
Dr Cayoun has combined the practice of mindfulness and cognitive behaviour therapy to help patients with chronic pain, most types of anxiety and depressive disorders, and even some aspects of Schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.
“I teach my patients to observe their experiences without personal bias and without reaction. To feel the sensations but not react to it or to the stimulus.
“For example, most people don’t realise that the body does not have pain receptors. We have stimuli that send messages to the brain through nociceptive fibres to be classified as safe or unsafe. In chronic pain, this is a decision made according to past judgements and reactions. It is learned. I help my patients with chronic pain to train their brain to process the pain sensations as safe and prevent a pain response.”
In this instance, the patient is taught to ‘observe’ the painful sensation and describe it by detailing its mass, motion, temperature and fluidity/constriction. Essentially to study it like a scientist. By attending to the sensations objectively, rather than taking them personally and assuming they are a threat to who we are, the brain can be taught to interpret the stimuli more neutrally and decrease the need for reactivity.
“The combination of mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy is very powerful. I have seen great success. In two 30-second increments patients reduce their chronic pain by about 50 per cent. After approximately two weeks of practice, they have learned to do it for themselves. After 2.5 months, their pain has further decreased significantly, independent of gender, source of referral, and type of pain, and without increase in their medication”.
Mindfulness is a tool for life that can be applied to all situations to improve your own happiness and that of those around you, according to Dr Cayoun. There are four stages in his mindfulness-integrated CBT training.
1. The Personal Stage, where you learn mindfulness skills, to notice and let go of unhelpful thoughts and emotions in order to address life’s challenges successfully.
2. The Exposure Stage, where you apply your mindfulness skills to daily situations that you might be avoiding to prevent discomfort.
3. The Interpersonal Stage, where you learn to develop better interpersonal understanding and communication skills in the face of tense situations, and learn not to react to others’ reactivity.
4. The Empathic Stage, where you learn to increase your capacity to be kind to yourself and compassionate to others in your daily actions, leading to a deep sense of care and connectedness with people.
While Dr Cayoun treats patients in his practice in Hobart, he has also made his research and approach more widely available in a new book: Mindfulness-Integrated CBT for Well-being and personal Growth: Four Steps to Enhance Inner Calm, Self-Confidence and Relationships.
No matter what we do, we usually do it with the belief that it will either relieve us of unhappiness or increase our happiness. The problem is that even happiness leads to suffering when it is based on particular conditions. Simply because the conditions that allow us to be happy at any given time, sooner or later, will change. They are impermanent.
Dr Cayoun says that being mindful is a way to evolve our consciousness and experience things without anxiety, fear or emotion.
You can become aware of the things that make you unhappy and let go of them. You can learn to face potential conflicts smilingly. You can gain the ability to say yes or no without guilt and you can learn to avoid producing emotions that are destructive. Importantly, you can also learn compassion which allows you to feel and see how everything is connected, so that you can be less harmful to yourself and others. That’s how we move towards happiness.